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Refugees cry out for help

new report by Human Rights Watch implicates the government of Uganda and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) of violating the rights of refugees living in that country.
Zachary Ochieng

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented the problems of political repression, armed conflict and other human rights abuses in Burundi, the DRC, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan, which often give rise to refugee flight. But no sooner had they arrived in Uganda than their problems doubled. The report notes that as soon as they arrive, asylum seekers and refugees have few places to turn to meet their basic needs. In most cases, UNHCR does not provide the necessary assistance.

InterAid, a Ugandan organization that serves as UNHCR's main implementing partner, provides counseling, some medical care, and income-generating initiatives for a small number of refugees. A few NGOs and faith-based organizations provide assistance only when asylum seekers are waiting for their status to be assessed. Once recognized as refugees, they must sign an agreement verifying that they will be "self-sufficient" in Kampala. Keeping this promise is very difficult for refugees, given that they are living in a city where Ugandan citizens themselves are suffering from unemployment and poverty.

Upon arrival, then refugees are first confronted with the problem of accommodation. In Kampala, newly arrived asylum seekers sleep and spend their days near the Old Kampala Police Station. This is the police station where their first interviews occur, and it is located just around the corner from InterAid. Then follows the food problem. The refugees are only allowed to share the once-a-day food rations of the prisoners held at the police station. Each adult refugee gets one portion of the total amount intended for the prisoners, which is donated by charitable agencies in Kampala. Mothers must share their portion with their children.

Sleeping at night is a major problem. Some are lucky and find shelter with friends or family, or with one of the two church leaders who give refugees shelter on church property. Others decide that since they need to be in Old Kampala to seek asylum or obtain services, they will sleep outside near the Old Kampala police station and InterAid. Several refugees explained that prior to the time of Human Rights Watch's visit they had been allowed to sleep inside a broken-down school bus that had been parked near police station. Several spoke longingly about the shelter and warmth the bus had provided. However, the bus had been allegedly towed away after journalists planned to write a story about it

Finding money to pay rent is a daily struggle for refugees in Kampala. Monthly rent for a room is between U.S.$5 - $17. In Kampala, most refugees live in crowded rectangular rooms made out of cement blocks. One neighborhood a Human Rights Watch researcher visited was the Kisenyi-Mengo, where many Somali refugees live.

In one room that measured approximately thirty-by-thirty feet, there were ten foam mattresses on the floor. Each mattress belonged to one family. One man with ten children explained that they had to take turns sleeping on their one mattress, says the report.

Some refugees, usually women and girls, obtain shelter by working as domestics. Usually they work only for room and board, without a salary. They are vulnerable to sexual and other exploitation. Zola R., a twenty-year-old Congolese refugee woman explained: “ I found a job working as a domestic for an Algerian woman. She had four children and no husband. She gave me food and a place to sleep. I worked from five in the morning until midnight every day. I didn't receive any pay, but food and a sleeping place”.

The report entitled: “Hidden in plain view: the problem of refugees living in Kampala”, notes that UNHCR is reluctant to continue assisting even the small number of refugees it helps in Kampala. Human Rights Watch attended a press conference in Kampala where UNHCR made its policy preferences quite clear. Mr. Saihou Saidy, the UNHCR Representative in Kampala told the press, "It is easier for UNHCR to deal with refugees in the camp setting. At some point we have to stop paying the rent of refugees. We recommend to refugees that they should go to the settlements”.

Asylum seekers in Kampala are not eligible for medical assistance from NGOs. They normally must go to Mulago Hospital, one of Kampala's public hospitals, to try and get treatment. Some asylum seekers go to independent clinics, where treatment is more immediately available and where medicines can be purchased. However, most forgo treatment because they simply cannot afford it.

But the saddest case is that of torture victims, who do not receive adequate care in Kampala. The report notes that this is in contradiction to UNHCR's own guidelines and the agency's recognition that "the personal, social, and economic costs of failing to identify and intervene with [victims of extreme violence] are devastating. When Human Rights Watch enquired about counseling for sexual violence or torture victims, UNHCR explained that they do have a system of referrals for refugees (not for asylum seekers) to an NGO called the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO). However, the Director of TPO explained that TPO does not provide any psychotherapeutic counseling for torture victims in Kampala, only in Uganda's refugee camps.

Refugees living in Kampala are partly suffering from the poverty and violence that is afflicting many Ugandan nationals. While the Ugandan government does allow some refugees to work and provides them with access to its public hospital, the government could do more. For example, the government's opposition to the presence of Sudanese refugees in the capital has meant that their access to assistance has been even more restricted than other refugees.

For its part, UNHCR has not challenged the government's strict policy requiring that refugees be "self-sufficient" if they live in the city. NGO and UNHCR assistance for recognized refugees is extremely limited, says the report.

The report also chronicles cases of harassment of refugees by security agents. Given Uganda's role in the region, Ugandan authorities occasionally work in tandem with security agents to harass refugees. In other cases, refugees are accused of being responsible (by virtue of being Congolese) for the deaths of Ugandan soldiers in the DRC. According to the report, the involvement of the Ugandan military in the war in the DRC has meant that once they are back in Uganda, soldiers have attempted to intimidate individual Congolese they assumed to be in opposition to their military presence (up to late September 2002) in the DRC. As a result, the Ugandan military has been implicated in several security incidents with Congolese refugees.

The Ugandan police have also been accused of committing violence against refugees. At times refugees are not specifically targeted, and violence suffered in custody is no different to that experienced by Ugandan nationals. However, sometimes the police violence appears to be linked to government suspicions about certain nationalities of refugees. Asylum seekers and refugees may wind up in custody after being individually arrested, but most often they are detained after being caught up in one of Uganda's immigration "swoops" (a word commonly used in Uganda).

The abuses continue unabated despite the fact that asylum seekers, refugees recognized under the Refugee Convention, and prima facie refugees must be guaranteed certain basic human rights. The rights most relevant to the protection problems documented by Human Rights Watch in Uganda include: the right to freedom of speech, the right not to be tortured, the right to liberty and not to be arbitrarily detained, the right to security of person, and the right to freedom of movement.

Article 19(3) of the Internal Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a party, provides aliens with the right to freely express opinions; and Article 21 provides for the right of peaceful assembly. The Human Rights Committee, which is charged with the responsibility to interpret and monitor the ICCPR, has explicitly stated that "[aliens] have the right to hold opinions and to express them. Aliens receive the benefit of the right of peaceful assembly and of freedom of association." The report also notes that the refugees live under constant security threats. Except for high-profile refugees, who are usually referred to UNHCR for resettlement, the Ugandan government is reluctant to accept full responsibility for providing protection to refugees at risk in Kampala. Instead it chooses to blame UNHCR for not doing enough to protect high-risk security cases.

At the same time, UNHCR asserts that the Ugandan government is not doing enough to protect refugees. In an interview with a Human Rights Watch researcher, UNHCR in Uganda noted that, "The security of refugees is the responsibility of governments, and the government of Uganda is equipped to deal with the security of refugees." While the government does need to do more to guarantee the protection of refugees whose lives are in danger in Uganda, Human Rights Watch also found that UNHCR is failing in some of its protection functions. UNHCR is not actively tracking or responding to the individual incidents of insecurity experienced by refugees on a daily basis and documented in this report.

Refugees are unable to access the office to report on beatings or other harassment. Even local human rights groups experience problems accessing UNHCR or convincing UNHCR to intervene with the Ugandan government on behalf of refugees. The agency lacks sufficient staff to be able to visit refugees in custody or intervene with authorities in cases that are not high profile.

The report recommends that to address the lack of a domestic legal framework for refugees, the Ugandan Government should adopt its 2001 Refugee Bill in accordance with the Refugee Convention and the OAU Refugee Convention.

To address the problems with camp confinement, refugees should be permitted freedom of movement consistent with Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and Article 12 of the ICCPR. Until those standards are met, the Ugandan Government should at a minimum provide, by statute or administrative regulation, permission for certain categories of refugees to leave refugee camps on a voluntary basis. Such categories should include individuals with serious security problems in the camps, those in need of medical care only available in urban centers, those who agree to be self-sufficient and individuals who have been living in a refugee camp for an excessive length of time, such as three years or more, and for whom alternative permanent solutions in the foreseeable future appear unlikely.

To provide adequate reporting mechanisms for security problems, the Ugandan Police should facilitate the filing of official police reports by asylum seekers and refugees regarding security threats. Copies of these reports should be sent to UNHCR as a matter of standard operating procedure.

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